BUFFALO — The signs that greeted the Bassmaster Elite Series pros at the NFTA Boat Harbor on Lake Erie before dawn offered a shade of foreshadowing. Wind from the north unfurled flags, corrugated the water's surface and sent a chorus of wire lines chiming against the masts of parked sailboats.
It was blowing hard and cold, and it didn't bode well for the fishing. High winds and rolling waves on Day One of the Empire Chase presented by Mahindra Tractors cracked boat hulls, overcame engines, swamped boats, prompted angler Preston Clark to void his day's catch by calling for a trailer to drive his boat back to the launch point, rocked anglers to motion sickness and in sum amounted to the most harrowing day of fishing on the tour this season.
If anything, the winds looked even worse on Friday morning, leaving BASS officials with three options: send 108 pros in bass boats onto the surly Great Lake; restrict them to fishing the day in the Niagara River; or concede Friday to the elements and live to fish another day.
"I wish if the wind was blowing, they just cancel it," said Gary Klein as he waited on the dock. Like most anglers, he didn't want to see the tournament head to the river. The trip would require hours of idling, and the use of a lock or two to reach 7 miles of fast-moving water that would confine anglers to fishing the banks.
Alton Jones, who practiced a day in the river in case of inclement weather, said he also hoped not to fish the river — but mostly because he wanted to go fish it while other anglers fought the lake.
"I really think the largemouth catches in the river will surprise people," he said. "You'll see some 15- to 18-pound sacks. And I hope I have one of them."
Further down the dock, anglers Rick Clunn, Steve Daniel and Kenyon Hill were discussing the possibility of a day on the river. "I'm with Kenyon," Clunn said. "If they have us fish the river, they should give us all tutus and have us go around in a circle." He contended that a day on the river would allow luck to determine the tournament.
Hill said that if they were stuck on the river, he intended to announce on a bullhorn that everybody take a break together mid-day. "I hear there's a bar along the river that serves a really good lunch," he said.
Mark Tyler worried that as a boat in an early flight, he would lose ground to anglers who had extra time to change out their rods and lures (as he would, from 8-pound test and dropshots to flipping sticks and spinnerbaits). "That current rips," he said of the river. "It's like a float trip out there."
Finally, a few minutes before the anglers would have launched, tournament director Trip Weldon came on the loudspeaker and explained, with utmost judiciousness, that with 25 mph winds forecast and a small craft advisory in effect, the day would be canceled, and if it were as nasty again Saturday that they'd fish the river. "I hope you respect our decision," he said. Anglers clapped and cheered.
"Wonderful!" exclaimed Kotaro Kiriyama. "Let's go home."
Weldon explained that the strength of the wind and its predicted direction — from the west, lengthwise along the 240-mile lake — led him to the decision. "Anything with a 'w' in it here makes you stand up and take notice," he said.
"Could have fished the river today, but the majority of them said that was a bad call," Weldon said. "We've had a lot of feedback and we just try to make the best decision we can. It's not going to please everybody, obviously."
Jones, for one, was a bit taken aback, having practiced the river and found it stocked with largemouth. Another unhappy with the decision was Jon Bondy, who contended that if BASS officials weren't going to consider the river the first backup option, they should have made that clear before the tournament, so anglers wouldn't waste time practicing there. "These guys didn't practice there," he said of the field. "That's why they don't want to fish there.
"It's not fair for the local guys who have spent time in that river. There's plenty of water, plenty of fish to be caught. Most of the pros disagree with me, but I don't care."
One of those who disagreed was actually a local, Paul Hirosky, who caught 21 pounds, 11 ounces to take the Day One tournament lead, but did so with waves sloshing over the back of the boat and wondering whether he might sink. He's been scared for his person three times on Lake Erie, he said, and Thursday was one of them.
"Yesterday wasn't the worst that it gets," he said. "Nobody needs to be a hero. If one person gets hurt, it would be the wrong decision to go out."
Said angler John Crews: "I like that decision more than fishing the river. The only thing I lose is the $6 I paid for the ramp fee."
Even Hill seemed pleased with the decision, even if he didn't get to carry out his river meal plan. "For lunch I'll probably have z's," he said.